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Massage Today
September, 2001, Vol. 01, Issue 09

It's "Back to School" Time!

By Cliff Korn, BS, LMT, NCTMB

Becoming a massage therapist requires a great deal of preparation, perhaps the most visible and tangible being basic education. In the not-so-distant past, the most common forms of massage education were mentoring and apprenticeship.

This is no longer the case; in fact, in many jurisdictions apprenticeship is no longer recognized as valid educational eligibility for the legal right to practice. These days, almost all prospective massage therapists go to school. Jurisdictions no longer recognize the validity of apprenticeship, primarily because the quality of instruction is so difficult to gauge.

How does one equate an apprenticeship to standardized vocational training in a school setting? Vocational schools are almost always under the oversight of a state Department of Education. However, as we all know, massage education is far from "standardized." Without going into the quantity of education required to practice -- that's a discussion for another day -- my concern in this article is the quality of education received by massage therapists entering the field today.

Formal schooling appears to have many benefits over apprenticeship. In a regulated environment, regulating entities should have an easier time verifying eligibility criteria. In an unregulated environment, prospective clients should be able to benefit from the reputation of an institution that graduates many therapists. Prospective students should be able to realize economies of scale from an institution that provides services to many students. A matriculating student should be able to benefit from feedback from multiple instructors and peers. But is formal schooling providing these benefits? If so, why do so many practicing first- and second-year therapists indicate to me that they are pretty good, "in spite of" their schooling? More important to the public, why is it that a given number of schools, all with state Department of Education oversight, will graduate just as many classes with vastly different levels of ability and/or knowledge? Has the business of massage education superceded the duty of massage education: to best prepare a student to be competitive as a practicing therapist? Lastly, why do so many recent graduates complain that they were ill prepared for how incredibly difficult it can be to establish a full-time practice that actually pays the bills?

Let me interject that I am not starting a rant on the sorry state of massage education in the U.S.! There is much superb massage schooling available to the ever-increasing numbers of potential students. What I am saying is that I believe there is much too much disparity in the levels of educational quality within any given state, and certainly among states. I see two causes of this phenomenon. First, precious few instructors of massage therapy have had any formal training in education, other than an in-house qualification program. Second, a massage school that markets effectively can succeed financially without obtaining institutional and/or programmatic accreditation.

The scarcity of experienced teachers is problematic for students and school owners alike. The inability to hire enough individuals capable of meeting appropriate guidelines forces schools to staff positions with less than desirable candidates. In my state, an instructor must possess the following qualifications to teach in a post-secondary private vocational institution:

  1. The instructor shall possess a bachelor's degree in the field in which he/she is to teach, from a school listed as an institution of higher learning by the United States Department of Education, or a comparable school of a foreign country, or the equivalent of such a bachelor's degree or any advanced degree from any such school; or
  2. The instructor shall possess a valid adult or secondary school teaching credential or certificate from this or another state, authorizing the holder to teach in the field of instruction in which he/she is to teach at the school; or
  3. The instructor shall have five years experience and be recognized as a tradesman or specialist in the profession, trade, industry or technical occupation in the field in which he/she is to teach; or
  4. The instructor shall possess a journeyman's license, if one is required to be fully qualified in this field or subject he/she teaches; and
  5. The instructor shall have been licensed for five years by the appropriate state licensing board or federal agency in the field in which he/she is to teach.

These qualifications are very similar to those in many other states. While the situation of last year's student being this year's teacher is not as prevalent as it was several years ago, I feel certain that many of today's massage instructors have neither a teaching credential nor five years experience. It is my observation that regulators overseeing post-secondary education tend not place much emphasis on proprietary vocational schoolteacher qualifications.

The lack of ubiquitous school accreditation compounds this problem. I applaud those schoolowners who go the extra mile and spend the extra money to have their institutions and programs accredited by valid accrediting bodies. While there are many unaccredited schools providing superior education, it is my opinion that the accredited schools are those that best:

  • ensure that their teachers are knowledgeable in instructional skills;
  • provide climate, conditions and environment supportive to learning;
  • provide resources for support of learning, including equipment and instructional materials that meet current professional standards;
  • provide professionally developed curricula;
  • provide supplies to meet the needs of students and the objectives of the course;
  • provide superior reference and text materials;
  • conduct ongoing evaluation; and
  • develop mechanisms to provide faculty members with the time and resources to stay current in their field.

I find that ill-trained massage therapists are not just a problem to be solved by a free market economy. These therapists are a problem for your practice and my practice. Today's clients walk in the door with expectations they didn't have 10 or 15 years ago. We have made great strides in educating the public on the benefits of massage therapy. A colleague I was speaking to by telephone mentioned that potential clients have the expectation that we, as massage therapists, have viable protocols for the management of muscular dysfunction and can pull from a large tool bag of options to benefit our clients. Even clients booking appointments for the more pampering aspects of our trade frequently present with low back and/or neck issues that need to be addressed before they can relax on the table. Therapists who aren't competitive in ability and provide less- than-expected service can turn clients off massage therapy forever. On the other hand, if they lack the knowledge and ability because they were never taught properly, how much can we blame them?

Kudos to those schools who are solving these problems every day!

Massage Today encourages letters to the editor to discuss matters relating to the publication's content. Letters may be published in a future issue of Massage Today. Please send all correspondence by e-mail to , or by regular mail to the address listed below:

Massage Today
P.O. Box 4139
Huntington Beach, CA 92605

Former editor of Massage Today, Cliff is owner of Windham Health Center Neuromuscular Therapy LLC. He is nationally certified in therapeutic massage & bodywork and is licensed as a massage therapist by the states of New Hampshire and Florida. Cliff is a member of the International Association of Healthcare Practitioners; a professional member and past president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association; a certified member of the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals, Inc.; and a past chairman of the board of directors of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork.


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